Switching from Chords-First to Melody-First Songwriting

Songwriting Your Dream?

There are good reasons why so many songwriters like starting the songwriting process by developing a chord progression first. Chief among those reasons is that one good progression gives you the foundation to develop many potential melodies. The problem is that by focusing solely on chords, melodies can sound a bit aimless. If you’re always starting your next song by strumming chords, it’s probably time to experiment with melody-first writing. If that notion makes you nervous, here are some ideas that you can try that might make it a bit easier.

You should note that songwriters who have a keen understanding of chords probably are the best ones to try melody-first composing. That’s because to develop a melody requires you to have in the back of your mind a strong awareness of the chordal structures implied by your melody.

And you can use that awareness to help develop your melodies.

Here’s a procedure that can get you started in melodies-first songwriting. This method assumes that you have not yet developed a lyric, and should be able to work even if you don’t know what your song topic is. It’s best to have a digital recorder you can use:

  1. Optional start: Set up a backing rhythm by tapping/slapping something on the armrest or your lap. In a sense, this qualifies as a “rhythm-first” method, but having some sort of basic feel is going to point you in some direction that will be an important part of any song. And a basic rhythm as a starting point won’t get in the way of your melodic creation. If you’re working out a ballad, skip this step.
  2. Sing a note and hold it. Experiment with note length; try some long notes, but also try repeating it as a short 2-, 3- or 4-note idea.
  3. Move up or down from this pitch. Once you’ve sung that original note (and optionally repeated it), move off in some direction to a new note, and do the same thing.
  4. Return to your original pitch. You’ve just developed a short musical “cell” that can serve as the starting point of something you can continue. Try repeating this 3- or 4-note idea a few times to lock it in your musical brain. Then try it again, perhaps starting on the same pitch but venturing off in the opposite direction.
You’ll notice as you do this that harmonies will start implying themselves. Let those chord choices happen; the melody-first method is practically impossible to do without at least considering the chords that might exist underneath.

Every songwriter has their own way of working. But you could easily imagine that many of today’s hits could have been started this way. Think, for example, of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”. It starts on a repeated pitch, then moves down. This idea repeats, then we get several repeated pitches before moving up.

As you work this way, you’ll see that repeated ideas become important in songwriting. You’ll also see that as your melody unfolds, it becomes easier to keep going. It’s normal in musical composition for one idea to give rise to other ideas.

You’ll also pick up a mood or general song “disposition”, which should help you begin developing song lyrics.

If melody-first writing is new to you, it may take you a while to feel comfortable working this way, but the advantage of this procedure is that you have the potential of focusing more on melodic direction. It makes for melodies that have more of a musical goal.

And because melody-first writing sounds a little different than chords-first songs, your songwriting output will be more imaginative and innovative.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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